Dusting off School Crisis Communications Plans – Good for Kids, Families and Schools

Back to school is upon us. Summertime schedules have officially yielded to school days. Fall is also the season when school/district crisis management teams meet to review their programs and policies.

Unfortunately for most schools, crisis is not a question of if, but when.  It may not be this year, or even next. But given what’s at risk – the safety and well-being of our children — schools must be vigilant. 

Last month I presented “Crisis Communications & Issues Management for Schools and Parishes” at the Minnesota Catholic Education Association’s Annual Convention. Much has been written about school crisis preparedness, and there are countless resources on the internet to assist schools. My talk included some fundamental strategies for managing critical issues and crisis communications, and throughout I focused on this overarching theme:

Crisis typically results in chaos.  And any type of crisis, controversy or conflict – no matter the size – creates distress for those impacted.  In the worst case, lives are at stake.

Crisis, however, can be an opportunity to strengthen an organization and its relationships.  In planning for crisis, consider  the opportunities a school has to become stronger so it can better fulfill its mission, better safeguard the well-being of the children in its care, and better develop the relationships that are vital to the school’s success?

It’s all about relationships. Crisis planning can result in stronger relationships with children and families, which ultimately benefits everyone.

1.    Children. In planning, schools can find opportunities to strengthen the most crucial elements for a learning environment.  In reviewing plans, ask the following:

·      How does this plan create a safe, supportive, and predictable learning environment?

·     What other aspects of our plan would make our school more safe, more supportive, and more predictable? 

A school can strengthen its relationships with the children by sharing age-appropriate information about its plans and expectations. Drills are an obvious (and required) way to plan, but other communications that help children know what to expect helps them feel safer and more trusting.  (See www.ready.gov/kids and www.ready.gov/parents-teachers for some options.)  Sharing plans can elicit questions from children, and this gives an even greater opportunity for teachers and administrators to hear and address new concerns.

For older students, seeking involvement and input for some crises may be appropriate and beneficial. Under what circumstances student involvement would be good for both the students and school are considerations that a crisis management team could give thought to as it plans.

In recovery communications, thinking through ways to validate the stress or fear of the past is critical. The balance here is to acknowledge the pain of the past, but not dwell on it. Positive, forward looking communications help the healing process. The communications are not trite, but they are substantive, meaningful and supportive of the student and their families. 

2.    Families. Schools can strengthen their relationships with parents and families by asking this one question:  What would our families want us to do?

The particular demographics of a school may influence families’ concerns, but generally speaking, families want to know: 

 ·         If their children are safe

·         How and why the crisis happened

·         How the school will fix any problems

·         How the school plans to prevent the problem from happening again

·         Who is accountable for school safety and crisis management

·         How they (parents) can help

To top it off, families want answers to these questions immediately, if not sooner. Once word of a crisis spreads (text messages, Facebook and Twitter promise it will spread fast), the school’s phones will ring and the e-mail inboxes will fill with questions from panicked parents.

A prompt response is among the most important strategies for managing a crisis effectively and maintaining a strong, trusting relationship with families. Schools should review the communications portion of their crisis management plans now. They should focus on providing fast, accurate and detailed communications (through communications technologies, social media, special web sites).  Schools should do this even if all the answers to the above questions are not yet known. 

The role of teachers and non-teaching staff. A school’s teachers and non-teaching staff are the lifeblood of any successful school. A school can strengthen its ability to respond to a crisis by giving all staff an opportunity to not just review and receive training of plans (which is required), but to provide input to the crisis management team as well. Because teachers and even some non-teaching staff are often the most connected with the students, they are in a good position to provide feedback about student needs. This enables school leadership and a crisis management team to develop a more comprehensive, effective plan.

In recovery communications, teachers and non-teaching staff are critical to assessing how best to support children, identify special situations that require attention, and effectively talk with children and parents to foster a trusting, safe and supportive relationship. 

The school is a haven. Other than the home or place of worship, school is the most important place a child spends time. Schools are places of learning, friendship and development. They are places of success and struggle, triumph and tears. Above all, schools need to be safe havens because learning requires safety and security.

This post also appears at StarTribune.com.